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Dialogues of the Carmelites — Curtis Opera at Perelman Theater

Carmelites -- interior Life and death, and particularly death, are pertinent subjects for the characters of Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera, “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” The France in which they live is in the throes of a self-righteous revolution in which whole categories of people can be whimsically declared enemies of the state by wild-eyed true believers who treat life cheaply and are more liberal at handing out death sentences than in providing genuine liberty, egality, and fraternity.

Poulenc and librettist Georges Bernanos set their opera in 1792, during the Reign of Terror that followed the overthrow of Louis XVI and the French Revolution. Curtis Opera Theatre and director Jordan Fein choose to update the time to today, not exactly far-fetched when you consider what is happening in Russia and the Ukraine.

No matter. The blue plastic stacking chairs, the polyester baseball jackets, contemporary clothing, and rifles in lieu of the guillotine  are just as appropriate as wooden benches, waistcoats, period gowns, and muskets would be. “Dialogues of the Carmelites” works in any setting in which oppressors wantonly kill people for supposed opposition to their cause, even when the condemned are benign and have no discernable political leanings, let alone avid ones.

More importantly, Poulenc’s music, though patently from the mid 20th century, expresses fear, war, struggle, and irrational, dictatorial rule. In 1957, he could have been referring to recent struggles in Hungary and ongoing purges in the Soviet Union or East Germany and using post-Revolutionary France as a stand-in.

Politics inform “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” but music, and especially its skein of great dramatic arias for a variety of characters, is what makes Poulenc’s opera engrossing. Certainly, the opening night cast of the Curtis production at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater, did unanimously bravura work as the key women in “Dialogues” told their stories and expounded on death, duty, and a life that has little to do with the temporal.

With Corrado Rovaris conducting, singer after singer demonstrated her dramatic prowess while gorgeously doing justice to Poulenc’ s strong and empathic vocal line. Several men also have their chance to emote to effect. Encompassing stories may focus on unquenchable tyranny and on the specific plight of the main character, Blanche de la Force, who leaves her father’s comfortable home to join a religious order, the Carmelites, and becomes a nun, but the plots pale next to the music that lets you hear what is on the minds and in the souls of women who have much of substance to impart.

No one can predict the future of opera in terms of general popularity. Audiences can currently support most major companies, but as trendy as opera can become on occasions when movies or television portray it in a light that makes more people sample it, the art is becoming increasingly elite. High admission prices have something to do with that, but the lack of exposure to opera and a kind of anti-cultural bent that makes it “cooler” to disparage opera and other arts than to appreciate them, take their toll.

The Curtis production of “Dialogues” proves that whatever happens to opera as regards mass audiences, aficionados who do attend will continue to hear magnificent voices and see performers who put more effort into acting that some past generations have. Whatever the theme of a character’s passage, Fein’s cast sang it with conviction and emotional intensity that conveyed meaning beyond the libretto being translated from the French via surtitles.

Several singers were forceful, but the one who impressed most, partially because of having a more continuous and varied part is Sarah Shafer as Blanche’s fellow novice at the convent, Constance.

No one who saw Shafer a mere month ago as Nuria in Opera Philadelphia’s production of Oswaldo Golijov’s “Ainadamar” would recognize the soprano. In “Ainadamar,” she was a glamorous blond actress studying her craft under the tutelage of the great Margarita Xirgu, and sang in beautiful harmony with Maria Hinojosa Montenegro.

As Constance, Shafer is a mousy nun, the lovely features so prominent in “Ainadamar” unenhanced by makeup and hidden behind owly glasses. When Shafer sheds her nun’s veil, she reveals radiant brown hair but not in a way that makes Constance anything more than plain.

Constance is one of the few upbeat characters in Poulenc’s opera. She is an optimistic soul who chooses to be happy and doesn’t acknowledge hardship or political threat easily. Like most of the characters, Constance sings about death, but she does so in the context her life, even in a cloister, is content and while she enjoys her existence and doesn’t welcome death, she can endure passing when her time comes because of the pleasure she’s derived in living.

Shafer plays Constance is a winning way. Her enthusiasm for living is contagious. She is a cheering influence even when she is singing about the most morbid of topics. Shafer conveys that inner peace and the thoughtfulness behind it. She also reveals a beautiful voice that is heard in more facets than it was in “Ainadamar.” Performing her long contribution to the dialogues, Shafer shows the audience many vocal shades while keeping it involved with all she is trying to make Blanche understand. Shafer’s duets with Rachel Sterrenberg as Blanche are a rich blend of sound.

Sterrenberg elicits empathy as Blanche. A young woman from a noble home despised by the intolerant revolutionaries, Blanche does not turn to convent life out of religious calling. She goes to the abbey at Compiegne because she is haunted by fears and the convent seems a safe refuge where she can endure the Reign of Terror and then make a decision about the rest of her life.

Blanche is more impulsive than thoughtful. Although she can muster enough reasons to leave home to persuade her father, a marquis, to allow her to enter the convent, coming to Compiegne does not allay her fears. Worry about her father’s estate being overrun, or being killed on the highway by a mob that surrounds her carriage, is replaced with the persecution the lunatics in power is mounting against religion and religious property. The revolutionaries want to confiscate church land and sell it at auction to “citizens” it admires.

Blanche’s plan has backfired. She is confused about where she would be most secure. It seem that whatever choice she makes, she has something to fear, something palpable and real. Being a member of the nobility and a nun seems to doom her, a thought with which Blanche cannot cope no matter how much Constance attempts to buoy her or other sisters offer her spiritual advice.

Sterrenberg shows various levels of Blanche’s dilemma. She is never at ease, never completely comfortable, not even when Blanche is doing some routine convent chore. The woman is wary of the political situation that surrounds her and is frightened of being killed by the agents of the Reign or Terror. All around her is death, some natural, some by political fiat, including the eventual execution of her father, and Blanche get never totally rid her mind of doubts and timidity. She is not stoic like Constance or strong in her faith like the leaders among the Carmelite sisters. Sterrenberg conveys that tension. Not in a way that makes you nervous watching her. In subtle ways such as always seeming watchful and anticipating or by never being able to fully concentrate on a matter at hand, a sudden concern being her usual distraction.

When Sterrenberg sings, you hear Blanche’s caution in her voice. This does not mar the loveliness or affecting quality of Sterrenberg’s performance. It adds texture to it. She serves her character and Fein while serving Poulenc and Rovaris.

Among Blanche’s initial duties at the convent is to take care of the ailing prioress, Mme. De Croissy, who gives one of the early musical treatises on death as she is dying.  Shir Rozzen is movingly dramatic in the part. Rozzen is animated as the now-delusional dying woman wants to cling to life while knowing she has to let go. The prioress also sings her spirituality, her immortality as one who will ascend to heaven, and her relationship with God. It is a bravura turn that shows the power in Poulenc’s music and the texture of the opera in general.

Jazimina MacNeil is both stern and maternal as the rational and pragmatic Mother Marie. Heather Stebbins takes an authoritarian staff as the nun who takes over for the late prioress, Mme. Lidoine. As with the other, they sing beautifully and with purpose. Fein has left no dramatic and emphatic part of “Dialogues” unexplored. The acting performances he elicits from his cast, and their glorious singing, make this Curtis production the satisfying success it is.

Others who show their acting and singing mettle in the production are Jamez McCorkle as a priest who comes to advise the Carmelite sister but ends up needing them to hide him from some of the more orthodox revolutionaries; Lin Shi, who sings exquisitely as a young nun looking at the sisters’ sad alternatives; Dennis Chmelensky as a particularly bratty and vindictive revolutionary who comes to evict the nuns;  Minglie Lei as the officer who orders the raid on the convent;  Roy Hage, who contributes two wonderful scenes as Blanche’s brother and who looks every inch the chevalier he portrays; and Johnathan McCullough as the prison guard who announces the sisters’ fatal sentence.

Fein’s move to the current 21st century has no effect on the main purpose of “Dialogues,” but it enlivens the opera and shows its modern context. Besides the blue plastic chairs, the appearance of which stymied me at first, Fein is clever is having the revolutionaries played by boys who look teenaged or younger and do their marauding in T-shirts, hoodies, Bermuda shorts, and sneakers.

The generally wonderful singing extends to the chorus and the various women who had solos as the nuns. The cast shows its mettle in the final scenes when more than a dozen voices filter down to one, Shafer’s as Constance. Rovaris and the Curtis Symphony Orchestra brought out the heavy, ominous tones in Poulenc’s score while gently softening the approach at the few instances in which as character expresses hope or optimism.

“Dialogues of the Carmelites,” presented by Curtis Opera Theatre in cooperation with Opera Philadelphia, runs through Sunday, March 9 at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday.  Tickets are $47 and can be obtained by calling 215-893-1999 or 215-893-7902 or going online to www.ticketphiladelphia.org.

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2 comments on “Dialogues of the Carmelites — Curtis Opera at Perelman Theater

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